President Barack Obama’s administration wants to win congressional approval of a free trade agreement with South Korea before July, U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk said.

“Everything we’re doing” is aimed at winning approval of the deal before a separate South Korean pact with the European Union goes into force on July 1, Kirk said during a panel discussion on the agreement in Washington.

The administration also supports approval of two other free trade agreements with Colombia and Panama, but it would “be a huge mistake to try to force all of the trade agreements into one lump vote with Korea,” Kirk said.

Each agreement has its own challenges and should be considered separately, he said.

Kirk indicated Obama would talk about his plans for the three trade agreements in his annual State of the Union speech on January 25.

South Korean Ambassador Han Duk-soo said his country urged the administration to send the deal to Congress “as soon as possible” so U.S. farmers and businesses will not be put at an competitive disadvantage when the EU pact takes force.

The pact with South Korea is the biggest of three trade agreements negotiated by the administration of former President George W. Bush but which have stalled in Congress because of strong opposition from Democrats.

Late last year, the Obama administration renegotiated the auto provisions of the agreement to win the support of the United Auto Workers labor union and Ford Motor Co, which previously had opposed the pact.

Those changes mean winning approval of the pact will no longer be as “horribly difficult” as it once was, but it will still face stiff opposition in Congress, Kirk said.

“We believe we can get it done,” Kirk said.

Republicans are anxious for votes this year on all three pending agreements, but many Democrats are still resisting action on the Colombia pact because of concern about a history of anti-union violence in that country.

That has clouded prospects for the Panama agreement, since it is considered unlikely Obama would submit that agreement to Congress without also sending the Colombian pact.

The U.S. International Trade Commission estimated in 2007 that the Korean agreement would boost U.S. exports by about $10 billion to $11 billion annually, while increasing imports from that country by about $6.5 billion to $7.0 billion.

A wide swath of U.S. farm, manufacturing and service industry groups support the agreement. But the AFL-CIO, the country’s main labor organization, remains opposed to it.

Both Han and Kirk touted the economic benefits of the pact, which they said would support jobs in both countries.

The United States will gain more in the short-term from market-opening commitments since it already has lower tariffs than South Korea, Han said.

But Seoul sees the pact as key to its long-term prosperity because it locks the country into a comprehensive package of economic reforms, Han said.

Approval would also send the region an important geopolitical signal the United States intends to remain engaged, Han said. (Reuters)